Ifs, Ands, and Buts

By Frankel, David | Artforum International, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Ifs, Ands, and Buts


Frankel, David, Artforum International


If only I had a cup of coffee . . .

I do not know why Elizabeth Murray paints cups, and neither, she says, does she, except she thinks "cups are beautiful." There are cup paintings of Murray's dating back to 1981, and they seem to me summary of her work: deeply attuned to art history, but wearing their knowledge lightly; generous, good-humored, but distinctly suspenseful in their skewed stances and tensely swollen volumes. Strictly, I suppose, these are still lifes, if outsized ones, a distortion recalling Claes Oldenburg. But where the still life classically suggests a kind of removal, a literal stillness, Murray's cups have a springy energy, a warm-hearted palette, a vernacular familiarity (organic Cubism meets Casper the Friendly Ghost), and a psychological portentousness, which, however, the artist is little concerned 'to discuss. "If I knew the meaning," says Murray, "I don't think I'd be interested in it." What does interest her about the cup is its form: "It gives me an image and a set of shapes that I can really fool around with."

Early last summer Murray began a cup painting, a shaped relief, and I was able to watch its growth. She began with a drawing, her usual method in these pieces. Drawings for Murray are "completely fun and easy and they roll right out of my mind"; many she scraps, but one that interests her she may develop into a relief, starting by enlarging it into a plan on tracing paper, at 1:1 scale and jotted with notes and inch marks. Turning this over to a studio assistant, she also gives him a clay model, only a few inches square but still a three-dimensional guide. Then she leaves him alone.

Warren Kloner, maker of many of Murray's stretchers and an artist himself, built this one according to his own usual method, cutting, carving, and layering sheets of pale-blond 5/8-inch poplar plywood into the form of the artist's desire. Some of the stretcher's surfaces - the largest being the cup's interior - are the plain wood sheet, broad and flat, just cut into a disk; others - the rim, the raised, commalike drop inside it, the handle at lower left, the thin crook-shaped tails that wander up and over from each corner - are carefully chiseled and rounded. I ask Kloner how many wooden elements make up the whole: "Lots," he replies, then thinks: "A real lot. Hundreds." (This is including the many bits and pieces that brace the invisible substructure.) Whether flat or modeled, the pieces are worked and sanded at their edges to meld with their neighbors.

Once the stretcher is finished - a six- to eight-week job - Kloner staples and glues down the canvas, which he has cut into pieces to fit the various contours. Inside the cup, where the largest single piece goes, he pours in "a lake of glue" and floats the fabric in it. "The glue shrinks the canvas a little," he tells me, "so it tightens up." The fragments of cloth don't always join - they're often bordered by narrow lines of bare ply. (Some of these, at the work's outer extremities, will turn out to be the only parts from this stage still visible at the end.) Finally the whole surface is sized with the same rabbitskin glue, now mixed with gesso.

At this point, had Murray told me this shaped monochrome was a finished artwork, I might have thought, Well, that's a big coloristic departure, but it is certainly a handsome thing. Kloner has basically made a relief sculpture, in a solemn gray dusted with white. (Actually, even when the structure was still bare wood, I thought it was gorgeous, but it seemed tasteless to say so, since Murray had months of work to go on it.) Framed by arc-edged triangles pushing out from its diagonals, the object's defining forms are two big ovals set akilter to each other, with an hourglass shape - the cup's body - pressured between them. The larger oval is the hoop of the cup's rim, its outer side a sloping shelf, its inner a deep overhang. The smaller one, with its incised circular scar, might be a saucer, but - presuming we are viewing the cup from more than one angle simultaneously, Cubist style - I imagine it as the vessel's base. …

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